Anatomy of a chain reaction

The contraption in its entirety

When facilitating construction-based activities like the chain reaction, we often speculate about the learner's thinking and progression of ideas. We make assumptions about their decisions, new ideas, and problem solving techniques through their words, and the artifacts that they create. Because of the language barrier, this workshop proved more difficult for us to assess their thinking trajectory, so we captured each group's process through a series of still photos.

We shared some of these pics with two monks that had worked together on their chain reaction contraption, and talked with them about their process while reviewing the images. Geshe Thupten and Geshe Yeshi collaborated on an ingenious mechanism that started the entire chain reaction: it was simple, but very effective. A pulley system, powered by a slow-moving motor: the lid of a pot functioned as a cam, and a hand-braided string as the belt. As the motor turned, the belt pushed a mallet forward, which eventually knocked over the domino blocks that terminated their portion of the chain reaction.

Geshe Thupten (left) and Geshe Yeshi (right) working at their contraption

Karen conducted the interview, and part of what made it so successful was showing them photographs we had taken during the workshop, and asking them about specific parts of their work, at first. In the (partial) transcription below, KW stands for Karen Wilkinson, GT is Geshe Thupten (left in this photo), and GY is Geshe Yeshi (right). The monks were translated by our interpreter.

The initial configuration and idea

KW: I was curious: this was the first idea I saw you try, can you tell me a little bit about what you were thinking then?

GT, then GY: At the beginning, at this stage we didn't have any particular set up in our mind, but we were finding [...] what things we can make on this table surface. We can use that block for their ultimate end. And so we tried to do that in various ways. So, before we used this one, we also used marbles, but these two boards... they [the marbles] are too small or too light to knock [them] down, so ultimately we had to take another way.

Two rubber bands work as delimiters

KW: The wheel had two rubber bands [...] before. Why did you change it? It was like this...

GY, then GT: Before we tried to... we used this without the rubber to rotate it, but we found that it is too slippery, and that the string goes up and down, and so in order to improve that we put these two rubber [bands], and then we tried it once or twice. At that time again we found that the two rubber bands, the blue one and the red one, are too thin, they can't quite hold the string in the required place. So, again, we had to change this rubber band to a thicker one.

Thick foam delimiter

KW: How did you get from the idea of this... to this?

GT: When we tried it once we faced a problem, so in order to prevent that, we had to find another way.

GY: Before we used [...] the string, [...] we used some rubber bands, and even though it can move, it is too slow and it's not so strong, so we thought of using a string, but the original string was too thin, and so we had to make a larger one. And so we managed by ourselves.

KW: I was very surprised when I saw that, that is was twisted!

GY: And rubber ones are also much more slippery.

KW: So, when the string crossed, why did you have to do it that way?

GT, with GY interjecting: This also came after a particular problem. We had an argument about this, whether to put this or not, because when we don't have this one over here [the strings crossing], the string goes straight from [a] larger angle, sort of, and so it's more slippery, and so it falls off. It even goes out of this yellow ring. And so we put it this way, and so it is much tighter, and so it can't slip either way.

A brilliant mechanism

KW: So one more question. I want to know about this, the ending, this part? When did you decide that this is what you wanted to have?

GY, then GT: Right from the beginning, we were concerned about how to knock down that block. [...] During the construction of the whole model we kept thinking about what kind of object we can use to knock [...] it. So after we put the string... first, we put only this one [the dowel], and it was not so strong, because it's too small and sometimes it goes out of the way, it can't hit. So we came up with this idea [of using a bobbin as a sleeve for the dowel]. Also we put this "hat" [the rounded wooden ball at the end], so it quite bigger, and easily hit, and also not so slippery, and it's got some weight, and so it can easily knock down that one.

KW: And what is the clothespin? Why did you need to have that?

Both: Even after we used this one, after we used the string, there was [...] one more problem. It's too heavy, and it goes up and down.

Now moving on from talking about specific photographs to a more general conversation

KW: When I first came to your table, maybe 10 minutes into the activity, you said you're doing something very simple because you are lazy.

All: [laugh]

KW: Do you remember saying that? So, do you still feel that way, after what you've made?

GY [laughing]: So, right from the beginning we said this is like... we are supposed to be scientist, like science students? And so this is the first science project we are doing, [...] and so we said it's very important we should make something easy and that is scientific.

GT: Even though I was interested in making some complicated models, I was concerned about the short period of time, and so right from the beginning I thought that it's difficult to put different things in the middle, and so in order to cover the space we used the long rope. [...] We are happy to have all these kinds of equipment and facilities so that we can make our own kind of model.
Before, [...] we have been taught about the kinds of different models, and different machines, but this is the first time we actually looked at the design and made it ourselves.

KW: Ha! So what do you mean? You studied mechanisms, but haven't built them? Like, in books? Or, how?

GT: Yeah, normally what we learn is from books, and other translations from the teachers. But this time, first we heard a description of cams and cam followers, and after that not only did we actually see it by ourselves, but we also made it, and we have seen how these cams are moving and working. So, looking at these things now I have some kind of clue that [...] other machines that we are used to see must have these kinds of structure inside.
I'm also feeling kind of concerned, or kind of worried, because now I feel that I will find it very interesting to make things, and I fear that I might end up spending my time making these sort of models in the monastery, and so I won't have time to study the theoretical part.

KW: Oh, uh-oh! [laughs] That would be a problem! [Laughs]

GT: So, from my side, I will try to split the time between making things and the theoretical part, and also a variety of thoughts on how to make these things.

KW: Good!

GY: Basically, I am a lazy person regarding making things, and I don't have much experience about making these kinds of models, making things by hand, but [...] during this workshop I came to realize that it's very important, in scientific studies, to have more questions and do practical things by yourself.
Before, during the previous science classes, and other conversations, I heard that the moonlight is the reflection of the sun's rays, but even though I heard this, I didn't like that very much, because I can't believe that, it can't convince me properly. But after working with this Mylar and all these reflections, now I am very much convinced that yeah, the light that comes from the moon can be that of the sun.
So, by looking at the works that you have done and all the responses that you take, all the care that you have taken for this workshop, it also gives us encouragement to work harder.


Night Puja in Varanasi

Rooftops on the Ganga
As the sun sets in Varanasi, we (Karen, Mike, and Luigi) collect out thoughts and gather our energy on the rooftop of the

Mmmm... Tibetan butter tea!

Then we decided to head to Varanasi, "just for a few hours". That turned into a full day of walking around, taking another boat ride, which took us so close to the funerary pyres that we started to feel sweltering from the heat of the burning logs, a visit to a temple dedicated to Spectators waiting for the PujaThe egde of the main Ghat
A few minutes before 6pm, the ghats are teeming with people, some already sitting on the raised platforms that serve as bleachers, and some scattered over the steps, on the roofs of nearby building, and, of course, on boats on the river. Loud music is playing over the loudspeakers, and at first I couldn't identify the source. Eventually I found out that it was a harmonium player and a table player in the front, play and singing. By the river, there are seven smaller raised platforms, each with a small altar in front, with a few items on top of it, waiting for the holy men to take their place on them. Next to each platform, high up on the scaffolding, there are two bells, connected via long strings to someone in the public.

Ringing the bellsThe platforms and the mobPraying and singing

Incense sticks
Eventually the time comes for the ceremony to begin. A candle is lit on each of the platforms, and the holy men take their place. The music becomes a devotional chant, slow and mesmerizing. for the entire ritual, each of the seven men will repeat exactly the same motions: the ritual begins with the playing of a conch shell, staccato at first, and ending with a long sustained note. Then the slow repetitive dance begins: first incense sticks are waved, toward the river at first, and then with identical motions in the other three directions.

Incense burners are litMore incense waving

Then big incense burners are lit, and waved in the same way, its sweet smell filling the entire audience.

ChandelierFiery cobraMarigold petals

One by one, different offerings are presented to the deities, some of them spectacular in their fiery glory, others as simple as marigold petals. The whole puja lasts for an indefinite amount of time, I really can't tell if it's been 10 minutes or 3 hours. Eventually the conch shell is sounded again, and most people start to leave.

However, the ceremony is not over yet. An even slower and more mellifluous dance with a feather brush begins, while the audience joins in the chanting and more upbeat singing. Finally, the holy men all gather at the front, facing the river, preparing for their last veneration. A yell goes out, from the singer and the crowd, hands in the air. A final farewell to the holy Ganga.

All gatheredEnd of ceremonyAudience participation


Chain reaction finale

Explaining the sequence of events

On the second day of working on their chain reaction machine (and the last day of building workshops!) we switched session, so that instead of the morning, we had the whole afternoon. We could hardly contain our excitement for what was to come, as the room lay all set up and in-progress from the day before, tables waiting to be completed.

Rubber band switchI like plutoTwo marbles' release mechanism

It seemed to us (Karen, Mike, and Luigi) that most of the monks had already settled into their ideas, and had a pretty good sense of what they intended to accomplish, and the associated metaphors that we had asked them to think about. Based on the previous days' tendencies, we had anticipated that most of the metaphors would revolve around three main themes: Buddhism, Tibet, and animals. Surprisingly, this activity brought out a little more variation and zaniness, with sometimes slightly disturbing undertones. For example, one of the elements in a machine consisted of a Tibetan monk slapping a Chinese person (cringe!). Another one involved an autorickshaw (repurposed from an earlier light-reflection prototype) running over a monk, which would then, by falling over, complete a circuit.

Falling monk switchFoamie monkAutorickshaws can be dangerous!

Always very inventive, some highlights included:
Tibet vs. US soccer match
A soccer match between Tibet and the US, complete with first and second prize cups, and clapping audience.

Domino effect
A brilliant mechanism
A brilliant pulley system, with hand-braided rope, that we had never seen before.

A couple of hand-made gears, which after many iterations, prototypes, and a variety of materials, finally worked flawlessly. Perfect
The beginning of something new?
Tashi's crazy monk
Tashi's creation, as always, was unconventional and a little bit crazy. He went through several different ideas, beginning to build, only to abandon them halfway through when he either lost interest in them, or ran into problems that were maybe too complex for him to solve. At one point he had started to build a model of the twin towers, including a way to make the tops collapse when hit by an airplane suspended on a string! Somewhat to our relief, he abandoned that line of thought, but that meant that he started the second day's with a blank table. Then in a fit of inspiration, he started stringing foam tubes together, eventually fashioning some sort of crazy oversized monk that would shake uncontrollably and make all kinds of scary and "horrible" sounds, including thunder, clanging bells, dogs chasing after cats, and loud and campy music. Through its shaking motions, the monk figure would cause pieces of aluminum foil to hit each other, completing circuits, and setting the next machine in motion.

The translators' Tibet express
A rare treat: the translators, who were by the way such an essential part of our experience in Sarnath, in and out of the workshops, got to collaborate on their own table. They made a brilliant "Tibet express" train, complete with conductive rails!
Finally, the time came to set the whole contraption off. In typical fashion, all the monks crowded around the tables, we started a countdown from five (in Tibetan, of course!), and Geshe Thupten Khunkhen set the first block off. Of course, a chain reaction machine never works smoothly! The snags are part of the fun, and the monks enthusiasm was as high as we've ever seen: there were shouts of encouragement, teasing of each other, and joyful yelling when things worked. In fact, the whole experience was so delightful, that we had to set it all up and run it one more time!

PIE card switchMiddle- and high-techBunny switch

And to end things on a great note, we set up an outdoor screening of one of our favorites chain reaction Outdoor screening

Chain Reaction contraption

Bruno Munari's chain reaction contraption

We (Karen, Mike, and Luigi) explored cause and effect today as we started a two-day build of a metaphorical chain reaction. Using Bruno Munari's drawings as inspiration (including his drawing of a machine for sniffing artificial flowers), we organized the work tables into a snake-like chain for the group to build their metaphorical machines. Ultimately, these will be linked together and set off as the finale of the workshop.

Luigi discussing a clapping machineThinking hardKaren helps with a switch idea

Getting ideas from past projects, a few new building materials, and a variety of evocative objects that we revealed especially for this activity, the monks jumped right in and started designing and building. There is little hesitation with this group as they each gathered a wide variety of materials and carried out a series of rapid prototypes - making observations, and discussing each of these with their partners.

EnvisioningDrop switchLooks good on paper!

Ultimately, ideas began to form, and challenges emerged that seemed too compelling to ignore. Each pair of monks made good progress in the short two and a half hour session, and it was difficult to get them to take a tea break (and we were quite late for lunch).

Pressing the switchMarble releaseChecking out the gear
Solar systemKaren helping with cricket programmingIntended trajectory

The ownership of ideas seems strong with this group, but, the ownership of the artifacts created during previous activities seems less important. Past project contraptions (like the automata, and Mylar Reflection machines) have been quickly incorporated into this final activity. Often, the machines from past activities are dismantled in order to utilize a cam, linkage, or machine system in their current projects. We were a bit surprised when we learned that they were taking apart machines that were not theirs to begin with, and when we asked the monks if this was OK, they looked at us with a sly smile and said "of course". There seems to be little need for them to own the artifacts of their learning, and as one mentioned "we carry our thinking and ideas with us much easier than our contraptions".

Testing the motorPulley
Karen and Tashi programming a cricketHigh and low tech


Reflection contraptions


"Failure is the pillar of success"

       - Tibetan proverb
Dhondup examines caustics on the wall


The next day we set the monks onto their next challenge: to construct a machine, or a kinetic contraption of some kind, based on some of the qualities of light that they had noticed the day before. During the previous day's discussion about the light exploration exercise, we noticed that, while being extremely skilled debaters on a logical and analytical level, the monks had some trouble either noticing or talking about the aesthetic qualities of what they were seeing. This turned one of our preconceptions on its head: before leaving, we had a feeling that the monks might find the cardboard automata activity too mechanistic for their enlightened minds, and that they would be taken in by the inherent beauty of light reflections; the opposite happened. So, being mindful of their attitudes, we tried to emphasize that they should concentrate on the aesthetic (a word that doesn't exist in Tibetan) qualities of light when thinking about their machines.

Planning on paperMaking a light lotus flowerCaustics and bunny

Another thing that surprised us is how quickly the monks come up with ideas that are creative, ingenious, and well formed. A few of them started by sketching out design ideas on their notebooks, while some others had an initial concept that they started, we would say, "prototyping", by either modeling a certain motion or projected image with their hands, or building quick and limited versions of what they intended to ultimately realize.

Building togetherBuilding a water boilerTashi cutting Mylar

By now, the monks have become much more comfortable and skilled at building. They approach the materials table with an air of purpose, and quickly scour it for the materials they need. They are also becoming much more comfortable flagging one of us down to ask for help, where to find materials, opinions on how to make something specific happen, and just to share their excitement at some of their discoveries. At the beginning of the session, Mike made an introduction in which he talked, among other things, about the difference between low-tech, middle-tech, and high-tech, specifying that all three types of technologies are equally important as ways of learning through building, and that they could choose to use any of them in their contraptions. The monks took this to heart, and we had examples of all three:
The lotus and the Buddha
Lobsang Dhondup made a contraption that is technically very simple, but very beautiful and ripe with meaning. His process was interesting and relatively unusual, in that he spent a very long time just playing with the materials, making observations, letting the quality of the reflections, and the interactions with the material (Mylar, in this case) "speak" to him and dictate what he was going to make. Initially he expressed frustration that he did not know what to do, did not have an idea for a machine. After being encouraged by us that what he was doing was exactly right, he made a number of observations about the way that light reflects, and how minute changes in light source and material positioning result in big changes in the image that it projected. Eventually he stumbled onto a reflected shape that reminded him of a lotus flower, and immediately knew what it was what he was going to do. This is the beautiful result.

Konchok Choephel and Tenzin Choegyal made an example of what we called "middle tech": their contraption projects beautiful and multi-colored light by using a simple slow-moving motor to rotate a disc. Interestingly, this was a direct off-shoot of their previous explorations with Mylar in a cardboard tube. They also first built a prototype, using just two tubes and turning the disc with their hands to see if their concept would work. The final piece projected a dazzling light show on a surface, which they further modified by reflecting that off a piece of crumpled Mylar.

Buddhist, scientist, or neutral?
Finally, Tashi's machine made use of a
Reflections on the ceiling
Some of the monks' choices surprised us for their creativity and playful spirit. Two monks decided to create a Mylar dish that could project beautiful reflections on the wall, and also double as a water boiler (for tea, maybe?). Others made a "peeking box", lined with Mylar and filled with balls, the object of which was to trick observers so that they would not know how many balls were inside. Finally, Geshe Niyma made a machine that could be activated by either the wind, a motor and a switch, or a cricket, therefore combining low-, middle- and high-tech in the same machine.

Testing the temperature
Mystery boxGeshe Niyma's three techs contraption

Once again, these inspiring individuals surprised us with the insights they brought to the activity, their engagement, and humor!

Light and shadow tiger